The Lost Battalion

: Winning A Cause World War Stories

On December 24, 1918, Lieutenant Colonel Charles W. Whittlesey of

Pittsfield, Massachusetts, was presented in the presence of 20,000

people on Boston Common by Major General Edwards with the congressional

Medal of Honor, the highest tribute of valor the United States awards.

General Edwards presented the medal with these words: Your heroic act

thrilled the entire American Expeditionary Force. It was a piece of
br /> stout-hearted work that reflected credit upon the part of yourself and

of the men who were serving under you. It sustained the best

traditions of American arms and valor. It is a great pleasure to have

the presentation assigned to me; I regard it as a sacred duty.

Lieutenant Colonel Whittlesey smiled, and straightening up to his full

stature of six feet and four inches, simply said, I thank you,


The medal was given to reward his courage and determination when with

his lost battalion he was surrounded by the Germans in the Argonne


On the fourth day of suffering in the cold and rain without food or

blankets, when their ammunition was almost gone, an American who had

been taken prisoner by the Germans was sent to Major Whittlesey--his

promotion to Lieutenant Colonel came later--with a written message

saying, Americans, you are surrounded on all sides. Surrender in the

name of humanity. You will be well treated.

[Illustration: Major General Clarence R. Edwards, former commander of

the Twenty-sixth Division, pinning the congressional Medal of Honor on

the breast of Lieutenant Colonel Charles W. Whittlesey.]

Major Whittlesey's exclamation when he had read the message was very

brief and very forceful. It made the Germans understand without

further parley that the Americans would never surrender. Major

Whittlesey's men cheered his reply. Not one of them, cold, hungry, and

almost exhausted, thought for a moment of surrendering.

Several days before on the morning of September 26, they had entered

the Argonne forest, as a part of the line of American attack. At

five-thirty in the morning, they had gone over the top in a very

heavy fog and behind their creeping barrage toward the German trenches.

They had to force their passage through trees, shrubs, vines, and

undergrowth grown all together so that it was almost impossible to

advance and yet keep in touch with one another as they were ordered to


They reached the first German trenches which were named the Ludwig.

The Huns named their trenches so as to identify them readily in orders

and upon the maps. These trenches were empty and they went on to a row

of fancy concrete and iron dugouts, called by the Germans Karlsruhe,

where they made their headquarters for the night.

The next day they met stubborn resistance from artillery and nests of

machine guns, but they were able to make progress. In the first mile

they passed over twelve abandoned trench systems.

As they went forward they left men behind at regular intervals to keep

them in touch with the regimental headquarters. Along this line of

men, stationed near enough together to communicate easily with each

other, orders, ammunition, and rations could be passed.

The Germans knew their plan and as the battalion in the next days

gradually got ahead of the main American line and out of touch with it

on the flanks, the Huns pushed through, killed part of the men on the

line of communication, and surrounded it, placing machine-gun nests in

the rear.

When Major Whittlesey discovered their predicament, he directed his

adjutant, Lieutenant Arthur McKeogh, with two men to make an attempt to

get back to regimental headquarters and inform the colonel of the

situation. Lieutenant McKeogh has told the story of his success. It

is intensely exciting and makes one shiver at the horror of men, who

have no personal enmity but might be friends, killing one another, and

also makes one thrill with pride and admiration for the courage that

dares even to death--not the quick death of the glorious charge, but

the slow death of thirst, exhaustion, and fatigue. It shows us the

worst and the best of war, and that the worst is too great a price to

pay for the best. Lieutenant McKeogh writes in an article in


I took Munson and Herschowitz, and on hands and knees, with drawn

revolvers, we began a detour of the nests. I was keeping my direction

by compass every foot of the way. We had been going a scant ten

minutes when shots from a light Maxim and rifles broke out in front. I

thought we had been spotted, but after a wait, when we started again,

we crawled within a few feet of the real target, now lifeless; he was

in khaki and apparently he had strayed from his outfit. During our

wait we saw a boche passing through the trees. From the crackling of

the brush there seemed to be others. With my lips I made the words

Don't fire to my runners, and then covered him, in case he saw us.

He went by. Realizing that we might have something of a time of it

getting through, I motioned the runners to my side, read the messages

to them in whispers and had them repeat. Then scooping out a little

hole in the sodden leaves under my chin, I buried the messages, with

several others from my map case, in fine pieces. Next I impressed upon

them that our mission was not to fight unless forced to it, but to get

back to the regiment, all of us, if possible; one, certainly.

Consequently we would separate when it became necessary.

Half an hour's traveling brought us to a broad clearing, cleaving the

forest as far as I could see, on a true north-south line. Our

direction was south, and the trail down the center of the clearing

meant real progress, although I knew trails to be dangerous. We were

not long upon it, when suddenly, out of a side trail, two German

officers appeared, fifty yards ahead.

The one in advance shouted something with Kamerad in it. But at the

same time he was leveling his pistol at me, and I needed no interpreter.

We darted off the trail behind a bush at its edge. The boches fired

into the bush as they came. We stretched out and waited. In front of

me a bough ran low and parallel to the ground; upon it I rested my

pistol, directing it upon the trail through the thin leaves underneath.

Presently Herr Offizier came creeping along, bent to the waist and

peering through the bush. We looked squarely into each other's eyes as

we fired, less than ten feet separating us. Being settled and ready

for him, my gun had about a second the better of his. I aimed at his

mouth, allowing for the rise of the bullet from the kick. As he

fired I actually felt the concussion against my face, we were so close;

then a hot, sharp pain in my right forearm, as if some one had suddenly

pushed a white-hot knife blade along under the elbow when I hadn't been


Munson and Herschowitz fired too, and there seemed to be shots from the

second boche. My own particular duelist dropped back limp after my

first shot, although I got off four in quick succession.

Now we made for the thick of the woods. My resolution was to stick to

them though they should be thick as fish glue. Under good cover Munson

dressed my wound. My fingers had begun stiffening up a bit, and I

worked them to keep the trigger finger in good trim, thinking at the

time what a ludicrous shot I'd be with the left hand. A thought for

soldiers in training: Are you ambidextrous? I've never fired a shot

with the left.

The wound itself was a puzzler. Almost at once the arm swelled until

it seemed that a duck egg had been inserted under the flesh. But,

feeling around it, there was no hard substance beneath. The sleeve

showed two holes within three inches of each other where the cartridge

had gone in and out. What probably happened was that my shot had

diverted his aim and his bullet had passed under my crooked elbow and

armpit, merely searing the forearm in a caressing sort of way. The

blood was negligible. Altogether, it was a cushy blighty, as the

Tommy puts it. We reloaded our revolvers to wait for nightfall. There

was a bit of stale bread in the bottom of my gas mask, forgotten until

now. I split it into three parts, about two mouthfuls for each, and

dug out some half-soaked cigarettes.

We'll have a smoke, Jack (military rank is forgotten sometimes), if

it's the last, I said, and he agreed with a wan sort of smile.

Herschowitz whispered that he didn't smoke, and dropped asleep as the

words left his mouth.

None of us had water. And we were very thirsty. The boys had white,

sticky saliva in the corners of their mouths, and, from the feel of

mine, I knew that I had too.

To the inevitable monody of machine guns, we dozed until dusk came.

Then with compass and revolver, one in each hand, I started again upon

the eternal crawl. My arm had grown in circumference until the sleeve

was tight upon it. Crawling added nothing to its comfort, for to do

the crawfish stroke the elbows are pushed out ahead and upon them as

anchors the rest of the body is then drawn up. As yet it was not

necessary to go so carefully. But when, after hours, we came to a

clearing as grateful as I was for the chance of unhampered movement, I

dropped to hands and knees. Ten minutes of thus shinning passed

without event. Then suddenly a boche voice called out, a little to our

front: Bist du Deutsch? That much German I understood. We

flattened. As it happened, we were at the foot of a tree at the base

of which grew brush. We lay motionless. Again the voice, with its

demand in intonation.

Then the bolt of a rifle clicked clearly and the owner of the voice

fired. The flash was clear against the night. From the right and left

of the flash, and close to it, came other flashes. The bullets whined

harmlessly above us.

Was this a small, mobile party? If so, they would be slinking about.

But during half an hour of their intermittent firing the position of

the flashes never changed. That looked like funk holes! And if it was

a case of funk holes, by all the nasty little elves of tough luck, we

had stumbled right into a German position!

By watching the direction of the flashes I tried to determine their

front. Cupping my hand over the radio-lighted dial of my compass, I

studied it in connection with their bursts of fire. They seemed to be

firing north. But north was our own battalion front, and theirs,

according to the military logic of things, south, unless--unless they

had swung in from our flank behind us and had dug in facing our rear!

No amount of juggling of the compass could satisfactorily account for

the position of those bodies. So I settled down to waiting tactics.

Clearly, it's wise to let your enemy think you have moved off while he

is most on the alert for your movement. After that he relaxes

vigilance, and you stand a better chance of getting away without

foreign substances under the skin.

I whispered--oh, very softly--that we would stay here for some time.

Possibly an hour. And then I fell asleep!

Munson woke me by gently pounding on my thigh. I don't remember the

time. Must have been around midnight. The funk holes were quiet now,

and we wormed away in a new direction without drawing fire. I

recollect seeing the shiny hobnails and the horseshoe of steel on the

runners' boots as I crawled back past them to take the lead. I

wondered at what distance they were visible.

Occasionally my helmet would come afoul of a vine or small branch; and

then like cathedral bells to my overstrained ears the edge of the

helmet would make a little ringing sound. I berated myself for ever

having removed its burlap camouflage, though it gathered all the sand

in the world to deposit in my hair.

Once I heard Munson struggling to restrain a cough. We froze to the

ground while he sputtered as softly as he could. And I was to know

later what mental as well as physical torture the sensation is. For

hours it seemed, painstakingly, inch by inch, we wormed our way out of

those funk holes. Out, as I thought. But it was deeper into them

that we went!

I was congratulating myself on leaving the hotbed, as I headed for a

bush, when, just at the fringe of it, and almost out of its very

leaves, came another demand in German.

This was a moment for quick action. It was time for the message to go

back by three individuals on different routes. I heard the safety lock

of a rifle snapped back. He would fire the next minute. Springing up,

I shouted: Separate! to the boys, and ran as fast as I could,

helter-skelter down the side of a gradual slope. I was making no

effort at stooping now. Speed was my salvation, if anything was.

Rifles barked all around. For a moment or two I heard the runners

crashing through the brush. Several shots hummed past me, but I was

too preoccupied to notice them much. I knew I'd have to get cover

soon--before they saw and dropped me. Just ahead, in dark outline, I

spotted what seemed to be a providential bit of cover. I made for it

full tilt, the sloping ground quickening my pace.

I hurled myself at it, legs first and spread apart, so as to land in a

sitting position. It was so that I did land--right astride the

shoulders of a boche. I had selected a German funk hole for cover!

As I landed, a second boche who like the first had been squatted down

rose to his feet, slowly, it seemed, alongside me. We were both bereft

of speech from the surprise; the fellow under me was incapable of

locomotion as well, for while I felt him squirm a bit he stayed put.

My mind was racing like an overfed gas engine.

What, I thought, is the convention when one tumbles in upon a pair

of Fritzes without the formality of being announced?

I knew I had to gain time until the muscular paralysis from the

surprise had passed. Subconsciously I must have been thinking that if

only I could speak to him in his native tongue he might believe for the

moment that I was one of his own.

I cudgeled my brain for a German expression. Then I remembered a

masseuse, a very German woman, who has called at my home for years to

dress my sister's hair. What was it she used to say so much? What was

it? Ah, I knew!

Was ist los? I said triumphantly to my vis-a-vis as he rose to his


Amusingly enough, I didn't actually know at the time that it meant

What's the matter? I had an idea it was a liberal translation of

Who's looney now? And that seemed pat enough for the occasion.

Was ist los? Fritz repeated with a strong, rising inflection on the

los. And at that he drew his overcoat, which apparently had been

thrown across his shoulders, high above his head and down over it, as

if he were cold. I can see the silhouette of that coat against the

stars now. Of course I could have been in the hole no longer than

fifteen seconds, but it seemed hours, and every move is deep limned

upon my memory.

As he lowered the coat, his hands holding the collar at his cheeks, my

wits became somewhat normal again. You idiot! I said to myself.

You've got a revolver in your right hand.

Sharply I brought the muzzle against his left breast and fired twice.

Then, crooking my elbow, I reached down, sunk the muzzle into the back

of the man under me, and again fired twice. I recall spreading my legs

for fear of injuring myself. His body crumpled under me.

The first one had fallen backward, supported by the side of the funk

hole. His hands seemed to be reaching blindly for something in his

belt now. Both their rifles lay extended over the little parapet. He

might be trying to get at his trench knife. So I fired again, and

without waiting to see the effect of the shot, sprang up and ran wildly

down the slope.

My breath was coming in gasps. I thought it was all up, for the whole

camp--a bivouac of a company it surely was--went into an uproar of

shouts and shots and flashes.

Amerikaner! I heard several times.

I don't know how far I ran. Not far. For I was expecting to be hit at

any moment. Again I found a low-growing bush. And again

half-anticipating finding myself with the enemy, I sprawled in under

it. My breath was burning my throat. I was horribly thirsty. And my

heart was pounding like a pile driver--and every bit as loud.

Little by little I squirmed in under the branches. Voices came from

half a dozen directions. Some were drawing toward me. About fifteen

yards to my right front, shots came steadily from what I knew to be

another funk hole. I thought of the shiny hobnails on the runners'

boots, and drew my legs up closer. My watch gleamed like a group of

flares, and I twisted its face to the under side of my wrist.

The voices were very close now. It seemed to be a little party,

beating the bushes for me. I saw one fellow's head and shoulders

against the sky line. My first thought was of my gun. I knew there

was but a single cartridge left. Softly I opened the clips on my

cartridge pouch and reloaded.

I didn't like lying face down. It was too inviting to a shot in the

back. I wanted to roll over and be prepared when they came upon me, to

sit up into some sort of firing position. But my white face (and I'll

wager it was unwontedly white!) might show up in the dark. So I clawed

my fingers into the ground in the hope that I could apply some

camouflage in the form of mud. But mud is perverse; it lies yards deep

when you don't want it, and is miles away when you do. The ground was

wet enough from the rains--so was I, for that matter!--but with spongy,

dead leaves. I tried smearing some over the backs of my hands, but

when I extended one to get the effect it was as lily-white as milady's;

whereat I hastily tucked it back under my gas mask, worn at the alert

upon my chest.

The searchers, meantime, were snaking around among the bushes. Their

conversation was as audible as it was meaningless to me--now to my

left, next close up, then withdrawing to my right.

All this time the li'l .45 was ready if they got so near that

discovery would be inevitable. I hadn't given up hope by any means,

but I did let myself picture several boches taking my maps and message

books (one of them full of carbon copies) into some dugout. Such odd

little thoughts as how long it would take them to find a boche who

could read English occurred to me. And from that I was whisked back to

a Forty-second Street barber whose English was excellent and who had

told me of his service in the German army. Many such reservists must

have returned to the Fatherland. I wondered, too, if, in the

anticipated exchange of shots, having wounded me, they would kill me

outright in reprisal for my killing their two comrades.

Oh, it was a cheerful line of speculation! I was deep in it when,

above the regular shots of the fellow in the funk hole nearest me, came

a rattle of pistol explosions some distance away. One of the

runners, I thought. Hope he was as lucky as I. Munson told me

later that he had run into a boche near a railway track and had dropped


The chap in the near-by funk hole began to amuse me now. He kept up

his shots at fifteen-second intervals for half an hour. I'm inclined

to believe those Jerries were more frightened than we. May have

thought it was a surprise attack in force. This fellow, for instance,

was firing, I knew, at nothing in the world but atmosphere. And in his

own mind he may have been bumping off a lot of Yanks lying in wait for

the word to charge at his front--wherever in blazes his front was!

I got to feeling rather snug about the nervousness of this outfit. And

pride cometh also before a cough. After three days of intermittent

rain, without overcoat, I had acquired a cold. And now my throat

tickled and my nose itched, and I was headed straight for a healthy

bark. I sunk my teeth around my forearm--the good one--and let go. It

was pretty well smothered and attracted no attention, for the fellow

with all the superfluous ammunition remained quiet.

Seemingly secure from discovery, I was in no great rush to decide on

future plans. But some sort of campaign had to be laid out, for dawn

was not many hours away. I think it was about two-thirty, and before

light I had to be out of those environs, if ever I was to get out. But

at the moment it would have been suicidal to move. The night had

become so quiet that I hardly dared raise my head for fear the edge of

the helmet would scrape against something. Once, when my head dropped

from sleepiness, the helmet brought up against the muzzle of my gun.

It sounded like the crack of Doomsday to me.

I studied my compass to prevent drowsing. I was satisfied that

whatever way I crawled--farther away from or closer to more funk

holes--it would be a matter of pure guesswork, so I determined to hit

out south when move I did. The sky was sown with stars. As I looked

at them I thought of all the untroubled people they were shining upon;

saw the theatre crowds on Broadway. Old stars, I thought, I wonder

if ever I'll see you again. And then smiled at myself for finding

time to wax sentimental when practical matters should be engaging me!

Next I deplored my luck that there should be stars at all on this

night. Wind and rain were what I wanted. Under their cover I stood a

fair chance at weaseling off.

A visual reconnoissance of the ground immediately in front of me to the

south showed, within reach, the stump of a sapling. I couldn't see

whether it had been cut by shell fire or for camouflage. Wriggling

forward a few feet, I extended my arm outside the bush. It was too

clean a cut for shell fire, my fingers told me. Nothing but a sharp ax

had severed it so smoothly. Here was one spot I'd circuit before going

south--if I would avoid going west.

The night was wearing on, and I caught myself half dozing several

times. I kept looking at my watch and telling myself that I

mustn't--mustn't sleep. The rawness of early morning did much to keep

me awake in my muddy, soggy clothes.

At about four o'clock I noticed that the stars were thinning out. If

only it would rain! I will always believe that there was something

miraculous about the way the heavens were swept clear of those stars,

as if a great hand had gathered them in. For soon a wind came up that

tossed the tree tops and bent even the bushes. And with it, within a

few minutes, a heavy, lashing rain. Nothing could have better suited

my purpose.

I reached up and snapped off a few branches. No danger now of being

heard. The wind was kicking up a delightful rustling. The twigs I

inserted under my collar, their leaves thus giving some covering to my

face and breaking the line of my helmet.

Without loss of time I began crawling, taking care merely to keep low.

As I left, a German voice was traveling along what I assumed to be the

line of funk holes, yelling Posten! every few seconds. I figured

that it was their Stand to, or the relieving of a guard, for a little

earlier there had been the regular tramp of feet--maybe two squads,

from the sound--along a plank walk to my rear.

Machine guns were clattering away at their matins in several places in

the woods, but I was leaving them farther and farther in my wake--the

only wake of mine that I wanted them to attend. Once more it was the

struggle with the forest; once more the difficulty of keeping my

bearings, constantly watching the delicate compass. But breasting the

wilderness didn't matter now. I was hungry and thirsty and so tired

that it was a real effort to plow my feet through the undergrowth. But

at least, I was done with boche voices.

Then I came to a path in the exact center of which was a shell crater

nearly full of clay-colored water. I almost fell upon the hole

reaching back for my canteen. But as I leaned toward it, a strong

smell of mustard gas rose. And I went on!

I hadn't gone far along the path when somewhere a boche shouted

something, but he was not very near and must have been calling to a

comrade. I darted into the woods again, resolved to stay in them if I

dropped some place for good. I was awfully tired, and to my surprise

found myself staggering.

Over fallen trees I climbed, so high that at times I was well above the

young saplings. Dawn was breaking now, and it was easier to preserve a

sense of direction. I came to another crater. While I took the

precaution to smell, I would have drunk, I believe, even had the water

been gassed. My mouth was terribly parched. Already I had resorted to

shaking the rain-wet young trees over my upturned face; I had even

pressed their wet leaves against my tongue. Now I drank--drank till I

could hold no more. The water was almost as filthy as Gunga Din's--but

it was wonderful!

Broad day had come when I reached another such wide clearing as that of

our dueling exploit. I was timid of taking it, but it ran south;

indeed, it may have been the same. The firing was faint behind me, and

I decided to follow it. I was vexed because I could not quite control

my steps. My gun was swinging listlessly in my hand, and for the first

time in twenty-four hours I pushed it back into its holster.

Half an hour's going disclosed a broad road ahead. I was passing

untenanted trenches. I heard voices ahead presently and sprang into

the bushes at the side. Then I went ahead slowly, with ears keen. The

voices grew more distinct; I caught syllables and--it was English, good

old English!

I tumbled out and approached several Americans standing near a funk

hole. I went up to one of them. He looked at me with some concern in

his eyes.

My God, but I'm glad to see you! I said. They were of the Third

Battalion, and my exclamation must have startled them, for, of course,

I did not know them. Tell me something in American, I added. My

nerves were frayed, I guess, and my voice sounded curiously far-off.

Is anything the matter, sir? one of them asked.

Nothing at all. I'm on my way back to regiment at Karlsruhe. Will

this path take me?

Then I learned that I had reached the Tirpitz trench, the reserve

battalion's new position.

Let me go back to the next runner post with you, said one, and made

to take my arm. Which annoyed me, naturally.

The colonel was about to eat breakfast when I arrived at the fancy

dugouts we had taken so many eons ago. I indicated my battalion's

position on his map and told him the situation briefly.

Lieutenant McKeogh adds, Relief was sent with ammunition and food on

September 30, and on the following day the refreshed command started

forward again--again to be cut off, this time for five days. The men

in the battalion crouched in the rain and the cold in their shallow and

hastily constructed trenches. The Germans kept a constant fire upon

them from machine guns and attempted to reach them with their

artillery, but fortunately they did not get the exact range.

There were machine-gun nests all about them and if a man showed himself

ever so little or made any loud noise, he brought upon all of them

volleys from the guns and from the trench mortars. At regular

intervals all the machine guns would sweep the place with a rain of

bullets. Snipers were also constantly on the watch for the exposure of

the smallest part of a man's body.

They had carried little food with them, for they expected it to follow

them along their line of communication. There was water in the swampy

little creek in the ravine, but to attempt to reach it by day meant

certain death. At night the enemy covered it with machine gun fire,

making it almost impossible for the Americans to crawl down and back

again. Many did make the venture, and some returned with their

canteens full, which they shared with their comrades. Others were

found afterward by the stream where they had fallen under the enemy's


At regimental headquarters it was known, even before Lieutenant McKeogh

got through, that the battalion was surrounded in the forest, unless it

had been exterminated or had surrendered. So daily, American aviators

flew over the forest attempting to locate the men. They dropped

carrier pigeons in boxes hoping some of them might fall into Major

Whittlesey's hands and that by them he might send his location to the

colonel. They also dropped boxes of food, but neither the pigeons nor

the food reached the lost battalion.

Major Whittlesey had no rockets to send up to give his location, and

his men could not yell loud enough to make the aviators hear them and

locate them, but their yells did help the Germans to get better range

for their trench mortars and machine guns.

As the days passed the Americans grew more and more exhausted, but

their courage and hope continued strong. All would rather die than

surrender. Their ammunition was getting so low that the Germans were

able to come closer to them, for Major Whittlesey ordered his men only

to fire when the Hun was near enough so that they were sure not to miss


After five days of this terrible exposure and strain, the battalion was

rescued by a relief party. Of more than six hundred men at the

beginning, three hundred and ninety-four survived at the end of the

five days' fighting and suffering. All were completely exhausted, and

many wounded. Many were so weak they had to be carried to the rear

where warm blankets, warm food, and drink awaited them.

But more than this awaited them. Their comrades were waiting for them

with happy smiles and proud cheers. A place in history among the

valiant deeds of brave and daring men also awaited them. They taught a

lesson in pluck and endurance that the world will not allow to be


To those who read this story of The Lost Battalion, Colonel

Whittlesey and Lieutenant McKeogh send the following messages:--

The most striking memory of one who returns from abroad is the memory

of the enlisted men, who bore the real hardship of the war and did

their work in a simple, cheerful way.

Charles W. Whittlesey.

America's greatest contribution to the World War was--the enlisted man.

His calm valor, his smiling self-sacrifice can never be told.

Arthur McKeogh

1st Lieut., Inf., U.S.A.